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James Priester


On June 29, 1979, 22-year-old Ozzie “Junior” Gardner was engaged in a dispute with Leroy Williams and James H. Priester in Rensselaer County, New York. The altercation ended with Gardner dead, killed by a gunshot wound.
 
Priester was indicted in the killing, charged with manslaughter in the first degree. However, Priester claimed he had walked away from the dispute, only to be followed home by Gardner, who had then threatened him and brandished a sword outside Priester’s apartment. Priester claimed he loaded his gun in case he needed it for self-defense and then walked out into the hallway to frighten Gardner away. According to Priester, Gardner had hidden in an alcove and, when Priester turned to re-enter his apartment, Gardner had unexpectedly attacked him, grabbing Priester’s gun and causing it to accidentally fire. Gardner then ran into the street and collapsed, with Priester firing an additional shot at the ground, which he claimed had been intended to scare Gardner off.
 
Priester presented this defense at his trial for first-degree manslaughter in the County Court of Rensselaer County in January 1981 to rebut the prosecution’s version of the killing as an intentional act. Among other evidence relied upon by the prosecution, Donna Stebbins testified for the prosecution. Stebbins had been a witness to the initial altercation between Priester, Gardner, and Williams, and she testified that Williams had left the altercation, stating that he was “going to get his gun.” The defense sought to present evidence that Stebbins had stated out of court that she did not know whether it was Priester or someone else who had made the statement about getting a gun. Stebbins was instructed by the court on possible perjury charges and, after consulting counsel, opted to invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The District Attorney refused to grant Stebbins immunity and the defense was not permitted to call her as a witness. In his closing statements, the District Attorney relied heavily on Stebbins’ testimony regarding Priester’s alleged statement about getting his gun.
 
Priester was found guilty of manslaughter on January 19, 1981, and he was sentenced to 8 years and 4 months to 25 years in prison.
 
On December 1, 1983, the Supreme Court of New York found that the County Court of Rensselaer County had erred in not granting Stebbins immunity so that she could testify for the defense without the fear of perjury charges, and the court found that this error required the grant of a new trial to Priester. In April 1984, Priester was retried, at which time he was acquitted on all charges.
 
 – Meghan Barrett Cousino
State:NY
County:Rensselaer
Most Serious Crime:Manslaughter
Reported Crime Date:1979
Convicted:1981
Exonerated:1984
Sentence:8.3 to 25 years
Race:Don't Know
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation